Monday, March 31, 2014

Whooping Crane

The fog lifted at noon on Monday, 19 February, so Erika and I set off for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, home of most of the surviving wild Whooping Cranes. But a fellow hotel guest informed us that the refuge was closed Monday through Wednesday—presumably due to a lack of Federal funding. A quick call to the refuge confirmed this information, but assured us that refuge roads were open. Our friend told us to go to the Big Tree area of Goose Island State Park, close by, on the way to the refuge. They had seen Whooping Cranes close up there the previous day. To make a slightly longer story shorter, we found the cranes at Goose Island. But, as you can see in the first photo, our view of two distant Whooping Cranes peering from within a slough was hardly satisfying. (You may have to enlarge the photo on your screen.) Better, though still far away, was a Whooping Crane feeding along the shore of the refuge (see bottom photo).

By the end of the afternoon, we listed 11 Whooping Cranes. The total number of wild Whooping Cranes is probably slightly over 250. Seeing about 5% of them in a single day was exciting.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Greater Scaup

Greater and Lesser scaup can be tricky to identify. These ducks are Greater Scaup that Erika and I photographed at Black Dog Lake on the south edge of Minneapolis/St. Paul on 29 March 2014. Field guides used to imply that the two species are separable by the color of the iridescence of the males’ heads—green in Lesser Scaup and purple in Greater. You can clearly see in the first photo that this field mark is not reliable.

A better key is the shape of the head. The Greater Scaup has a rounded head, while the Lesser’s head is almost crested—at least the back of the head has more of a corner than does the Greater’s. I have always felt that the Greater Scaup’s back is brighter than that of a Lesser. The brightness is the result of finer bars on the Greater’s back. I think that the white spot behind the female’s bill is bigger on a Greater Scaup.

One of the best ways to distinguish the two species is shown in the lower photo by a bird that obligingly stretched its wings. The white stripe on the Greater Scaup’s wing clearly continues across its primary feathers. Compare this photo to one I took of a Lesser Scaup. The white is restricted to the secondaries on the Lesser Scaup. Note also the darker back stripes on the Lesser in the linked photos.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons, like this one Erika and I encountered in Rockport Bay last February, were also heavily hunted for the millinery trade (see previous Snowy Egret post). But Great Blues are more widespread and have less specialized feeding behaviors than many of our other herons and egrets. Numbers were less impacted by the slaughter and many populations rebounded. "Nevertheless," write Vennesland and Butler (2011), "breeding colonies remain vulnerable to disturbance and habitat loss…"

Friday, March 28, 2014

Firewheel Blanketflower

On 19 February a few patches of Firewheel Blanketflower—our first 2014 wildflower—greeted Erika and me as strolled along the Rockport, Texas, beach. Gaillardia pulchella, also known as Indian Blanket, are supposed to flower in May and June, but are often escapees from gardens. They are commonly used in roadside plantings. Several cultivated varieties exist. The flowers attract butterflies and are important for native bees.

A tea from the root was used by Native Americans for gastroenteritis and a chewed root powder was applied to skin disorders. Teas were used for sore eyes and nursing mothers’ nipples. The Kiowa thought this flower brings good luck (

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Snowy Egret

In the late Morning of 19 February during our visit to Rockport, Texas, Erika and I strolled back to our hotel. We saw several egrets and herons, among them, this Snowy Egret. This species's population was decimated by the millinery trade of the late 1880s. Heron and egret plumes adorned women's hats. In 1886, plumes sold for twice the going price of gold (Parsons and Master 2000). This slaughter continued in the United States until 1910, when these birds became protected by law. 

Snowy Egrets have since made a comeback, and now range even wider than in historical times. But another threat lies in wait. Of the 127 million acres of US wetlands that existed during colonial times, 100 million had been drained by the late 1970s (Parsons and Master 2000). Even today wetlands are being drained and tiled. Difficult environmental efforts may be required to maintain tomorrow's egret populations.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bottle-nosed Dolphin

Off the jetty at the end of the Rockport beach, we discovered dolphins circling each other. Bottle-nosed Dolphins are the most likely species to be found along inshore areas along the Texas coast.
I presume that these dolphins are cooperatively feeding, although I can not find much data in a cursory search of the Internet. These dolphins may be herding small fish to trap them along the jetty, or perhaps they are circling to concentrate a fish school.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Willets are another common February bird along the Rockport coast. I have previously blogged at length on the species. Willets consume "insects, small crustaceans, mollusks, polychaetes" and small fish (Lowther et al. 2001). These authors also write that the Willet "sometimes swims in California salt ponds and seizes prey near [the] water surface." As you can see in the upper photo, swimming also occurs in the Texas Willet repertoire.

Until they fly and flash their black and white wing pattern, Willets may give birders pause. The Willet in the lower photo, however, displayed this striking field mark without taking wing.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Greylag Goose

Sunday, 23 March 2014, Erika and I photographed a Greylag Goose in Faribault, Minnesota. The problem is that Greylags are the ancestors of most domestic geese.  You can be sure Greylags are domestic if they are oddly plumaged. But, in classic plumage, wild and domestic escapees can not be differentiated. Only two definite records exist for wild Greylags in North America--they are native to Europe and Asia--in Alaska and Newfoundland. But Greenland populations are on the increase, and one might expect more American records for wild birds. But how would one know their provenance? This bird was equally wary as the Canada Geese with which it fed. Perhaps one would have to find a Greylag banded in the wild in Greenland.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Long-billed Curlew

How do you sleep standing on one leg and with an enormous bill? Tucking your bill under your wing is one solution. But the bird in the second photo (the same individual as in the first) slept with an outstretched bill. Even as they walk down the west side of the Rockport beach (in the third photo, a different bird from the first two photos), its a wonder that these Long-billed Curlews keep their balance!
I have blogged about Long-billed Curlews at least once before. Long-billed Curlews are one of only nine species of prairie birds whose breeding range is restricted to the Great Plains. They winter along the coasts of the southern United States and across much of Mexico.

Long-billed Curlew numbers have greatly declined during the past 150 years. Until the mid-1900s, they were over-harvested. Prairies have been turned to pastures, cities, and farmland. Dugger and Dugger (2002) write, "There is no accurate estimate of the current population size, but the species is considered vulnerable throughout its range. Continued loss of grassland breeding habitats is thought to be the greatest threat to population stability."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Marbled Godwit

As I have previously blogged, most Marbled Godwits breed in the prairie pothole region of the Great Plains in the northern United States and southern Canada. They winter on the coasts of the United States, Mexico, and Central America.

Oddly, although Marbled Godwits are fairly common, little is known about their ecology. When breeding, they are spread out, and their nests are hard to find. These birds are monogamous and long-lived. During migration, unlike most other shorebirds, they become vegetarians, consuming plant tubers. In the winter, birds, like this individual foraging off the Rockport, Texas, beach on 19 February, consume various annelids, small clams, and crabs (Gratto-Trevor 2000).

Friday, March 21, 2014


Sanderlings are small, gray and white sandpipers with black bills, feet, and eyes. Another field mark is their black shoulders (hidden on the bird in the upper photo, but clearly visible in the three birds below).  They often chase waves on the beach. They run towards receding waves and away from incoming water. As the sand is exposed, the birds probe for food. They are also found in other wetlands, especially during migration.

Breeding in the far north Arctic of both hemispheres, in North America their winter range is extraordinary—they can be found all the way from southern coastal British Columbia and Massachusetts to southern Chile and Argentina, a span of some 100 degrees of latitude (MacWhirther et al. 2002). Sanderlings, nevertheless, are seldom numerous and populations are threatened by people developing and using sandy beaches.

On 19 February, Erika and I were surprised to see but one Sanderling on the Rockport, Texas, beach—but the next day, on South Padre Island, we found a flock of three birds. Wintering birds of both sexes vary in their degree of territorial defence. Birds sometimes defend beach-front territories. At other times, birds do not act territorially, resulting in small flocks of the birds feeding together. (See also my previous Sanderling post).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ruddy Turnstone

Erika and I saw a few sandpipers during our walk down the Rockport, Texas, Beach on 19 February 2014. Most common were Ruddy Turnstones. Note that this bird is running with both feet off the ground. I previously posted photos of this species from Florida.

Ruddy Turnstones are one of the most northern breeding shorebirds. They breed across the Arctic in North America, Europe, and Asia. They winter along the coasts of the United States and Central and South America all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Elsewhere they winter across the Pacific Ocean and the coasts of Africa and Asia. Their numbers are thought to have decreased since the 1800s, due to over hunting by people. In fact, they have disappeared or greatly decreased in some areas of Europe (Nettleship 2000).

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Common Merganser

I will interrupt my report on Erika's and my Texas and New Mexico adventures as local and current opportunities present themselves. In this case, as happens each spring, a small patch of water has opened under the bridge along the Cannon/Wells Lake causeway west of Faribault, Minnesota. Many waterfowl will be attracted to this location as the spring progresses. Today, 18 March 2014, both this drake Common Merganser and a male Hooded Merganser swam among the more plentiful Mallards and Canada Geese.

The Common Merganser is a cold-hearty species that can even winter in Minnesota if open water persists. Therefore the species is often one of our first harbingers of spring. I have previously written about this species’s biology.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Black Skimmer

On the Rockport, Texas, beach, behind the American Avocets in the photo above rests a large flock of Black Skimmers. A closer look at the skimmers, with their elongated lower mandibles, can be had in the middle photograph. To my surprise, I find I have not blogged about this species. The lower photo is a closeup of the bill, taken in Key West, Florida, in 2011.
Skimmers fly low, with their beaks open, dragging their lower mandible in the water. When they hit a prey item, the upper mandible snaps shut. Often skimmers will make a second pass over the ripple caused by the the mandible on the water. The thought is that small fish may be attracted by this ripple, and are then eaten by the returning skimmer. Even at night, without the aid of sight, skimmers are able to catch their prey by just feeling their strike.
Three species of skimmers are found around the world. Historically, skimmers belonged to their own family of birds, Rynchopidae. Now they are considered to be in a subfamily of gulls and terns. Ornithologists argue, however, if skimmers are more closely related to gulls or terns. Perhaps they are a sister-group to both gulls and terns, derived from some ancestor of all three groups of birds (Gochfeld and Burger 1994).

Monday, March 17, 2014

American Avocet

As predicted, fog descended upon Rockport, Texas, on 19 February. Erika and I walked the Rockport beach. I was not too concerned, because adverse weather conditions occasionally result in interesting photographs. Almost immediately we spied a large flock of basic (winter) plumaged American Avocets.  How different these birds are from the bright birds John Holden and I saw last May in South Dakota.

Avocets get their name from the Italian word “avocetta,” which means graceful bird (Ackerman et al. 2013). American Avocets breed in freshwater wetlands in our interior west. They winter in freshwater and brackish waters of the southern United States and Mexico.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Laughing Gull

Our plan after Dallas, where we visited family, was to spend a day and a half in the Rockport, Texas. But our plan was subverted by a malfunctioning laptop, which we tried to fix at an Apple Store in Austin. The repair was not successful (and is still unresolved). We arrived in Rockport late in the afternoon of 18 February.

Rockport is one of our favorite birding spots, not the least reason being the Laughing Gulls that breed within easy walking distance of the town. I posted photos of this colony taken during our last visit to Rockport in 2012. Various studies, both behavioral and genetic, conclude that Laughing Gulls are closely related to Franklin’s Gulls. On the other hand, the gull genus, Larus, has been found to be an unnatural grouping. Laughing Gulls have been moved to a different genus, Leucophaeus.

With our plans changed and fog predicted, we decided to spend the next morning birding along the Rockport beach and perhaps attempting a quick trip up to Aransas the next afternoon. It would be a shame to miss seeing Whooping Cranes, but not, after all, the end of the world.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Black Vulture

The BirdsEye folks have a companion app for the iPhone that maps birding hotspots. Thus I learned of Ray Roberts State Park near Denton, Texas, complete with a “resort” at which one might spend the night. Really the resort is a motel stuck in the middle of the park, a very clean and convenient location, but lacking in the accouterments one normally associates with the word “resort.” But birders need only birds.
Roosts are important for Black Vultures. Adults aggressively control roost membership, and generally non-related birds are barred from membership. This exclusivity allows birds to locate carcasses by following successful birds to food sources. Being related means this mentorship is not at the genetic (and hence evolutionary) disadvantage to the tutor.
Black Vultures do not build nests. They lay their eggs on the ground, in caves, hollow trees, or abandoned buildings. They are monogamous and form long-term bonds. They feed their young for up to eight months after fledging. Most of the information reported in this post is from Buckley (1999).
Black Vultures are almost exclusively carrion eaters. Unlike the Turkey Vulture, which use olfaction to locate dead animals, Black Vultures lack a sense of smell and can not find carrion by scent alone. (In Ecuador, I have seen Turkey Vultures locate rotten meat completely hidden in beetle traps.) Black Vultures make up for this inability to locate food by smell by following Turkey Vultures and then displacing them at the feeding site. In the photo below, taken at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the Black Vulture on the right seems to be keeping a close watch on the two Turkey Vultures on the left.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tufted Titmouse

Erika and I are back from a month visiting relatives and birding in Texas and New Mexico. In this and in subsequent posts, I will report on our adventures.

We left snow-bound, subzero Minnesota on Valentine’s Day (14 February), and reached Andover, Kansas, despite white-knuckle, icy roads across southern Minnesota and all of Iowa. The next morning I walked behind our hotel and listed our first new birds for the trip—an inquisitive flock of Tufted Titmice. Actually I was hoping for Black-crested Titmice, a central Texas speciality found south through northeastern Mexico. But Kansas is well north of the northern limits of the Black-crested Titmouse’s range in southern Oklahoma.

Brushing up on my identification skills, I noted that this titmouse sports a gray crest and a black forehead. A Black-crested Titmouse has a white forehead and a longer, black crest. The two titmice were, until recently, considered to be races of each other. They interbreed in a narrow region where the two titmice overlap. But their genes are subtly different and their calls, though often indistinguishable, are also slightly different (Patten and Smith-Patten 2008).

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sabine’s Gull

Sabine’s Gulls nest across the Arctic in both the Old and New Worlds. Eastern Russian, Alaska, and western Canadian birds winter in the eastern Pacific from Mexico to Chile. Gulls from eastern Canada, Greenland and Spitsbergen are thought to winter off western Africa. Sabine’s Gulls are also reported in lesser numbers off east African waters. This gull is named for Edward Sabine, who discovered them in 1818 (Day et al. 2001).

I photographed these birds off the Washington coast and I first listed the species off Lima, Peru. They are rarely sighted in the upper Midwest.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Limpkins were common along the the Lake in Limoncocha, Ecuador, where Erika and I studied birds for 14 months in 1975. Not until our Florida roadtrip in 2010 did we add the species to our United States birdlist. I have previously blogged about this odd bird, but thought I would share another photo from that trip. I took this photo just west of Fort Meyers.

Limpkins are cursed because they eat almost nothing but Apple Snails. Nevertheless the species is found from Florida, south through the Caribbean and South and Central America. In Florida, the destruction of wetlands, for agriculture, flood control, or development has decimated Apple Snail populations, and consequently has caused Limpkins to decline. Over half the Florida wetlands in southern Florida have been lost (Bryan 2002), but wetland restoration projects give some cause for hope for the future of both the snail and the bird.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Red-fronted Coot

In June 1974, Gary Lester, Ted Parker, and I found Red-fronted Coots in a marsh along the coast of southern Peru. Previously the species was known only from central Chile to Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Across most of this range, the species is common.

This coot prefers reedy marshes, and, although it can dive, it prefers surface feeding. It only rarely ventures from cover. One of the joys of our graduate work in Latin America was contributing to our understanding of such basic knowledge such as the ranges of the continent’s birds.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rufous Hornero

The Rufous Hornero is an ovenbird, a bird family that ranges throughout most of South America. This species is found from Brazil and Bolivia south through Argentina. This Hornero is monogamous and often forms lifelong pair bonds.

They build large mud nests up to 30 cm in diameter. Inside they usually have two rooms, a large nesting chamber and a smaller vestibule. There are one or two openings to the structure. The nests are built in trees, on top of fence posts, telephone poles, and even on bare ground. Up to three nests are sometimes built on top of each other. Old nests are used by other bird species.

These horneros are common and can tolerate human disturbance of their environment. In fact their range has expanded in recent history as a result of deforestation. More information can be found at the following website:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Galapagos Dove

As is the case with many island birds, Galapagos Doves are relatively tame. They are more more wary now than in Darwin's time, when they readily approached human intruders. They even perched on people. Hunters easily harvested the doves with sticks and dozens could be killed one time. Now populations are mostly holding their own and they are tolerant of human modification of their environment. Threats to their numbers include feral cats and avian diseases brought to the islands by introduced birds (such as pigeons) (Birds of the World, Alive). Erika and I took this photograph in the Galapagos Islands in 1976.